A future without fossil fuels is ideal but impractical in the short term. 

However, for people not afraid of science, a PNAS paper showing that synthetic biology can be used to manipulate hydrocarbon chemicals, found in soaps and shampoos, in cells is some welcome news. This could mean fuel for cars or household power created from naturally-occurring fatty acids. Fossil fuels even more organic than current fossil fuels. Delightful!

Hydrocarbon chemicals are everywhere in our daily lives; as fragrance in soap, thickener in shampoo and fuel in the car. Their number of carbons and whether they are acid, aldehyde, alcohol or alkane are important parameters that influence how toxic they are to biological organisms, the potential for fuel and their olfactory perception as aroma compounds.

The researchers used synthetic biology to hijack the naturally-existing fatty acids and direct those fatty molecules towards the production of ready-to-use fuel and household chemicals and this breakthrough allows researchers to further explore how to create renewable energy from sustainable sources, and the advance could lead to more innovative ways of sourcing fuel from natural resources.

The study shows is that it is possible for one to take sugar or oil and, by use of an engineered E. coli bacterium, convert them to chemicals such as alkanes, fatty aldehydes and fatty alcohols which are found in an enormous range of commercial products; of which shampoos, detergents, petrol, diesel are a few examples. What about ice cream? Well, no.

"The sugar could be sourced from the breakdown of plant matter, while oil could be extracted from algae. This is just the beginning of what could be achieved with this conversion system. Research efforts are now underway into implementing this system in photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria. This could then allow the conversion of carbon dioxide toward the desired chemical using sunlight," Dr. M. Kalim Akhtar, Senior Postdoc in the BioEnergy group at University of Turku and co-author of the paper told us in an email.

"In our laboratories in Manchester we currently work with many different biocatalysts that catalyse a range of chemical reactions – the key is to match up the correct biocatalyst with the specific product you are trying to make," said Professor Nick Turner from The University of Manchester in their statement. "Biocatalysts recognise molecules in the way that a lock recognises a key – they have to fit perfectly together to work. Sometime we redesign the lock so that if can accept a slightly different key allowing us to make even more interesting products. In this example we need to make sure that the fatty acid starting materials would be a perfect match for the biocatalysts that we discovered and developed in our laboratories.

"As with many leading areas of science today, in order to make major breakthroughs it is necessary for two or more laboratories around the world to come together to solve challenging problems."